Invitations from the past

Chicago in the winter -- from zachanderson.com

Chicago in the winter -- from zachanderson.com

It was lunchtime. I was browsing the Chicago Craigslist, drooling over the large beautiful apartments that could be had for much less than what the Ukrainian and I are paying for our 1 BR in San Franciso’s Noe Valley. The day before, I had calculated that Chicago has a 26% lower cost of living than the Bay Area, but only a 11% lower average salary rate. It is also significantly closer to my family in Iowa and only a 2 hour flight to friends in New York or family in Washington, D.C.

These are the thoughts that cross my mind when the Ukrainian and I talk about having a baby in such dismal economic times. A baby is something I really want, but I worry about how we will manage it all on our combined income — while not impoverished in the slightest, is very definitely middle class — when housing and childcare are both not only so expensive here, but also extremely difficult to find.

While browsing Craigslist, I was also listening to Alice 97.3 on ITunes Radio. The Smashing Pumpkins’ song “Tonight, Tonight” came on. I listened to the lyrics, waiting for the lines: and the embers never fade in your city by the lake the place where you were born. The city by the lake is Chicago. The place where I was born — well, really, it’s the suburbs of Chicago. But still…everytime I heard this song, it takes me back to the life I had before I first moved to California. Could it be a sign, I wondered, to hear this song while browsing the Chicago Craigslist? I dismissed the thought. Signs had not done much for me in the past.

I checked my email to get away from all thoughts of returning to the Windy City. I have a good job here and the Ukrainian is establishing his life here. It would be asinine to shake things up. And there, in my email, was a little mini-shake-up.

“We’ve received an invitation from E to his Halloween party on Saturday,” I IM the Ukrainian.

“Who’s E? Your ex-boyfriend?”

“Yeah…” E and I met in the midst of the breakup with the Bulgarian. We dated in the months I spent preparing to move to the Netherlands. We broke up while I was there. Got back together in a much more tentative way after I returned to San Francisco and then broke up once again in the spring of 2007. It was the demise — or rather never-success — of this relationship that made me post the ad on Craigslist to which the Ukrainian responded. While E and I never call each other up to say “How’re you doing?” we do end up on each other’s party invite list. I’m never sure why.

“So what do you think?” I asked the Ukrainian. I never mind a good house party (they’re much preferable to clubs these days, now that I’m in my 30s and married), but was there the need to keep putting my husband in the awkward spot of being paraded around in front of my exes? Besides, I have now learned from E’s last party — the first held since we were married — that the more interesting male guests no longer pay attention to me. It’s the ring on my 4th finger. It’s the husband whose eyes my eyes meet from across the room every 30 seconds or so. If the men are single, they have little to gain from much conversation with me. And if they’re not, it will only be moments before their significant other will find away to interrupt the conversation. It is moments like these I despise the more puritanical twists of American culture. Europe always seemed more relaxed. Indeed, at the dinner parties I attended there, significant others were always seated apart to shake things up a little. It was a chance to talk to someone besides the one person you talk to everyday.

I.E. in a bikini

I.E. in a bikini

“Well, I have to meet up with I.E. this weekend. She is in town for the weekend. But I have to be at a conference all day Saturday and I have a midterm due Tuesday.” Oh right. I.E. His childhood friend from his hometown in eastern Ukraine who now lives in Chicago. My inner puritan woke up started flashing:  red light! red light!! Where had I heard this story before? Oh right, the Bulgarian whose ex-girlfriend from Bulgaria so innocently reinserted herself into his life, apartment, and then bed. I needed more information about this I.E.

“Do you have a picture of her?” I IMed the Ukrainian.

“Check your email,” he responded after a moment’s pause.

And there it was. Right there in my email:  a picture of a beautiful, blond Russian woman in a bikini. She was the sort of Slavic beauty that so many American men fantasize about when they visit sites like russianwomen.com.

“Mr. Ukrainian, she’s hot!” I ferociously panicked-IM the Ukrainian. My mind raced back over the few slightly-heated discussions we’d had over the past few days about a few key issues regarding the future. Now was not the time for him to be finding solace in his childhood chum who happened to look like a swimsuit model. And who was she anyway to be sending my husband pictures of herself in a bikini?! Damn these East European women! They are so clever. These were not the sort of social skills we learned back in rural Iowa. My mind recalled the model-like build of the Bulgarian ex-girlfriend. Not again! I thought.

“Check your email again.” The Ukrainian wrote over IM.

I went back to my Google mail. And there is was. A snapshot of a nice-enough looking woman standing on a bridge in the night wearing a formal (bridesmaid?) gown. She was attractive enough, but so very much not the Ukrainian’s type. I relaxed with relief. And then I started laughing. My, did the Ukrainian know how to rile me up. He knew exactly what he was doing when he sent that swimsuit picture.

“Assehole!” I IMed back. He knew I was joking too.

Now that the threat was gone. I became more truly curious about this woman who came from where my husband comes from and now lives where I came from. Maybe, just maybe, I thought. She could be a key to get us back to where I though I might want to really be.

“So what does she do?” I asked.

“She’s a commercial financial analyst.”

My eyebrows raised. I didn’t need to write anything on the IM. The Ukrainian could hear my thoughts.

“Don’t worry,” he continued. “After I graduate and get more experience at my company, I will apply to hers too.”

Maybe there are signs. Maybe we will be in SF forever. Maybe a year from now, we will find ourselves in Chicago. Maybe life will take us yet elsewhere. But suddenly, all the crushing weight I was feeling about how to manage having a baby in SF lifted just a little. There just might be other options. The world and our future didn’t seem so locked in.

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X-years ago, a meme

I read Sandier Pastures — a blog written by a Filipino woman living and working with her husband and young daughter in Dubai. Today, she blogged this meme and I am following suit.

15 years ago — I was 18 and in my first month of studying at the University of Chicago. Coming from such a small town in rural Iowa, I found the institution to be very intimidating. I was the coxswain on the women’s crew team (though I quit after gaining quite a lot of weight. 😦 ). My roommate was from Queens, New York. Her family had moved to New York from China when she was a child due to the fact that she was child #2, a clear violation of China’s one-child laws. In October 1993 (15 years ago), I was reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth Of Nations and Homer’s Illiad. I also studied Physics and Calculus. I did not own a computer, so I frequently could be found in Harper library’s computer lab until 3 a.m., trying to write 3-page papers. I really felt as if I had nothing to say about either texts. (It would not be long until I began to wonder how I would fit all that I had to say in only 20 pages.)

10 years ago — I had just started working my first “professional” job as a software engineer. My office was located on Chicago’s North Side across from Cabrini Green. The firm consisted of the owner, the secretary, myself and one other engineer. I had to answer sales calls as much as I had to write code. The job paid $27k per year. My food budget was limited to $5/day. I worked on the weekends at The Gap on Wabash Avenue across the street from Marshall Fields to supplement my income and be able to buy new clothes. I lived in a carriage house behind a decrepit mansion in Chicago’s North Kenwood neighborhood with 2 roommates. As soon as the autumn came, mice invaded the house.

5 years ago — I’d just left NYC after living there for 4 1/2 year to return to Chicago. I began studying at the Catholic Theological Union for a Master’s in Theology for Inter-religious dialogue between Catholics and Muslims. I was also telecommuting from Chicago into NYC and Dallas for my engineering job. I lived on W. Warner Ave. on Chicago’s North Side with a super-cool roomate that I met on Craig’s List. My dogs, Sophie and Anna came with me from New York. I felt very satisfied and content with the world and my place in it. I was reading Primary Readings in Philosophy for Understanding Theology. Despite my happiness, I felt very broke as I was still paying off my student loans from undergrad and was now paying my graduate tuition.  So, a few months later, I accepted a job transfer to San Franciso and left grad school.

3 years ago — I just moved from San Francisco to Haarlem, the Netherlands. I was working in Rotterdam. I was suffering a broken heart over the Bulgarian. I was still involved with someone else back in San Francisco. And I was falling in love with the Dutchman. I was having all sorts of problems with my legal paperwork with the Dutch authorities and general problems fitting in at my new job. My commute between Haarlem and Rotterdam was 1 1/2 hours long on a good day. I had no friends — just my 2 dogs that I had dragged with me. I also did not have telephone service or internet at home. I was lonely. I was reading Reading Lolita in Tehran: a Memoir in Books on the train back and forth between Rotterdam and Haarlem, grateful that I was even given the opportunity to live my life so much on my own — clearly the women in the book did not have that chance.

1 year ago — The Ukrainian had just moved in. We were spending a lot of time making multiple trips to Ikea to purchase a bed and other needs for our apartment. My sister and her husband had just come to visit. We held a massive party complete with a DJ to celebrate our living together. I was planning my 3 week trip to SE Asia, so I was reading travel websites rather than books. I also went to NYC for a week on a business trip. Felt like I had “come so far” from rural Iowa while in a business meeting at MTV headquarters. I felt very optimistic about my career. Still had no idea that the Ukrainian and I would soon be getting engaged, let alone married. And after that, I would leave MTV.

Yesterday — I walked with a friend from Noe Valley to Fort Mason to meet up with other friends to watch the Blue Angels. Afterwards, I walked to Union Square to meet up with the Ukrainian so we could go home together. While I had been relaxing in the sun with fighter jets doing tricks over my head, the Ukrainian had been studying. We browsed the shops of Union Square and found some things we liked for “the future” but nothing “for now”. We took BART back to 24th St. where he treated me to a “Let’s celebrate trying to make a baby!!” dinner at We Be Sushi on Valencia St.

Today — I regretted not eating raw fish at We Be Sushi last night as I received confirmation that we’re not yet successful in making our baby. I’m only slightly disappointed as we are just beginning our tries and I am not so young anymore. I spent the morning booking the Ukrainian and mine’s tickets to Iowa in November so that we can meet my sister’s new baby that was just born 2 weeks ago. In the early afternoon, we took our babies dogs around the Castro and to Dolores Park. I opted out of the festivities that were going on in Portrero and spent the rest of the afternoon at home catching up with friends on the E. Coast. Now, I’m testing some code for work for tomorrow.

Tomorrow — It’s Monday. Not much to say about that. I hope to either walk or ride my bike to work to enjoy this weather. And I also hope to wrap up this non-enjoyable project I’ve been on. Perhaps I will finish a blog entry I started  week ago. But I have not much to complain about as I am truly grateful I have a good job given these uncertain economic times. I will most likely be reading the NYTimes, keeping an eye on the Dow.

On our first anniversary, I finally learn to trust my husband

Sunday was the 1 year anniversary of the Ukrainian and I meeting. I spent the day stranded at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago due to tornadoes and other extreme Midwestern weather. The Ukrainian spent the day working on his financial internship in San Francisco. We were 2300 miles apart with no idea of what time we would see each other again. I was exhausted from a multi-city tour of the East Coast and Midwest that originated due to the need to attend a memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery the previous Monday and to be in Chicago for my 10 year class reunion at the University of Chicago by Friday. In the middle of my travels, I spent 3 days in NYC working. I was stranded and exhausted. The Ukrainian was over-worked and far away.

You wouldn’t think such a set-up would lend itself to romance…but au contraire…as anyone who has ever seen Love Actually knows, airports are the place-to-be for romance at its finest with all its good-byes and hellos, reunions, last-moment-forevers, and those who meet their lovers while being stranded themselves.

I had a friend in New York whose then-boyfriend now-husband used to take a taxi to meet her at La Guardia whenever her flight arrived or departed — no matter how early or late. Another friend would take the bus up to Harlem and then over to La Guardia to meet her fiance so that he wouldn’t have to travel into the city alone. Me? I just gave all my visitors my address and expected them to hail a cab themselves just as I hailed one myself whenever I was off to or coming from someplace. I was never in love enough or had anyone who loved me enough to pay the cabfare and take the time to meet me at the airport.

Then I moved to San Francisco in the spring of 2004. Within months, I met and fell in love with a Bulgarian (not to be confused with the Ukrainian) who drove a silver G4 Golf and made it his duty to see that I was always picked up from San Francisco International airport. During the 6 or 7 months we were together, I traveled often. To Des Moines. Austin. Dallas. NYC. Miami. Dallas again and again for work. Each time, the Bulgarian was there to pick me up right outside United’s baggage claim in Terminal 2. I took his dedication to airport-pickup duties as a true sign of his love and devotion to me. The drive from the airport to the city of San Francisco was filled with my chattering about all I saw and did on my trip. At my house, he would carry in my luggage, we would have a little romance usually followed by a nice dinner out on Valencia St. “Being picked up at the airport”. Could there be a more romantic date than that?

But the relationship didn’t last. All the while the Bulgarian was picking me up at the airport and following up with superbly romantic dates, he had scheduled his ex-girlfriend back in Sofia, Bulgaria to move in with him into his 1-room San Francisco studio apartment come winter.

After her arrival and our breaking, there was no longer anyone to meet me at the airport. Gone was the anticipation I felt when I deboarded the plane and made my way down to United’s baggage claim. Now, it was almost the same mess of a life I led in NYC. After getting the bag, I would have to spend a not-so-small fortune on a taxi, or wait forever for the train back to San Francisco. While in New York, I had felt young and independent and quite worldly making my way to and from NY’s airports, in San Francisco I felt merely old and rejected. Sad that not only did I have to travel myself, I had no one to come home to.

2 years after breaking up with the Bulgarian in 2005 and less than a week after meeting the Ukrainian in 2007, I was departing for another trip. This time I was flying to Las Vegas to join 24 strangers on a wild and crazy road trip through Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. We would be visiting the Grand Canyon, hiking in the desert outside of Page, Arizona, and embarking on a perilous hike to Angel’s Landing in Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. The trip was part of a conscious effort to revive the independent spirit that I had lost when I broke up with the Bulgarian and, subsequently a year later, the Dutchman.

The Ukrainian seemed sad that I was leaving only a few days after our meeting.

“I’ll be back,” I told him.

“I’ll pick you up at the airport,” he replied.

“Really?” I asked.

“Really.”

But the Ukrainian wasn’t waiting for me outside the United baggage claim at terminal 2. I stood at the baggage claim, exhausted and dehydrated from my desert hiking trip, waiting for my desert hiking gear to appear on the conveyor belt when suddenly 2 arms grabbed me from behind, a face nestled itself into my neck, and flowers were thrust into my hands.

It was the Ukrainian!!!

Driving around San Francisco International airport waiting for me to appear, as the Bulgarian had done, was not good enough for the Ukrainian. He bought the flowers. He parked the car. He greeted me in a most romantic, if a bit surprising gesture.

My fellow hikers stared. The women flashed green with a bit of envy. Here was one of their fellow hikers getting the scene-from-a-movie airport greeting. Immediately, I knew I had made the right choice. Of all the men I could’ve been dating at that time, I wanted him: the Ukrainian.

There have been more trips since that first one, of course: Iowa, New York, and Asia. And each time the Ukrainian has made it his mission to meet me right at the baggage claim. Even after his car finally died a brutal death, the Ukrainian would take the train down to the airport to be there for my arrival.

But despite my love for the Ukrainian, and his great romancing talents, I kept finding myself lacking the anticipation of having someone waiting for me at the airport. I was always happy to see him and happy to be home. But I held back from the “OhMyGodI’veBeenWaitingForeverToSeeYouAndIAmSoHappyYou’reHere” onslaught of emotion that would’ve made me grab him wildly and kiss him with all the full force and equality of my love for him.

I held back because I didn’t trust the situation. I didn’t trust that the day might come when the Ukrainian would not be there to meet me at the airport with flowers and a hug and a kiss and a smile. I didn’t want to transform myself back into the rejected woman I had been only a year prior.

But this trip back East on the anniversary of our meeting and almost the same anniversary to the day of our first pick-up at the airport was the first time I had traveled since we’d been married. And something was different. Something had happened in the past 2 1/2 months since we had said “I do” in the same spot that Marilyn Monroe and Joe Dimaggio had said “I do” some 40+ years ago in San Francisco’s city hall. I had begun to relax. I had begun to trust my husband. That no matter what divorce and marriage statistics might say, my husband would always be there to meet me at the airport and also be there for anything else I needed in the coming years and decades. There would be no ex-girlfriends secretly inserting themselves into his life and no sudden spurt of Anti-Americanism (as had been partially the case with the Dutchman) causing him to get cold feet. We were already married. We had made a commitment to each other to stick it through thick and thin.

And while sitting there in O’Hare airport on our 1-year anniversary of our meeting, waiting for the weather to calm down, I wanted to be with my husband. I imagined him coming up to me from behind with flowers in his hand just as he did that first week after our meeting. I imagined the romance that was sure to follow once we got home. And I imagined us lounging on the sofa afterwards, eating our anniversary cake and discussing all the details of our week apart and our year together.

I texted him every update to the flight delays and weather pattern. I texted him when I got on the plane, when we ready to take off, when we landed, when I was inside the gate, in the bathroom, and on my way. As I headed down the stairs toward United’s baggage claim, my eyes scanned the waiting people looking for his blonde hair and his tall, lean physique. At first I didn’t see him. I was disappointed, of course. But knew he would be there, somewhere. And then, just as I head over to the claim for United Flight 149 from ORD to SFO, I saw him. And he saw me. And I ran. I ran to him. I jumped on him like a monkey. And I kissed him for the entire past year of loving him. And I kissed him for not having kissed him enough all those times he had met me before.

At last, I had found my someone to always meet me at the airport. And OhMyGodIHadBeenWaitingForeverAndCouldn’tWaitToSeeHim.

A little (un-pc) background

Summer 1995 — Edwardo’s on Chicago’s 57th St.

It was a regular summer weeknight. The Edwardo’s staff comprised mostly of equal parts students from the University of Chicago, local African Americans from the ghettos that surrounded Hyde Park, and not-entirely legal immigrants from Mexico who staffed the kitchen and bussed the tables. We had two waitresses on duty: myself (the UofC student who had just moved up from answering phones to waiting tables) and Lateisha, an African-American woman who came from one of the blighted South Side neighborhoods that surrounded Hyde Park. She had waited tables at Edwardo’s for years. She carried a “Don’t mess with me attitude” and I had no intention of messing with her.

Our shift started at 5 pm and not long after, our first customer arrived: A large African-American family of about 7 people. Edwardo’s waitressing etiquette commanded that the more senior waitress on hand was to get the first table. After that, new tables were to be rotated evenly between the staff.

“You have a table, ” I said to Lateisha as the family stood by the “Please Wait to be Seated” sign at the front of the restaurant.

“Nuh-uh. They ain’t my table. You take them.”

“But they’re first. And you’ve been here longer.” Why the hell doesn’t she want the table, I wondered.

“I don’t wait on no niggers.”

Oh. Ok. If you’re going to put it like that. I guess the table was mine. Like I said, I wasn’t interested in messing with Lateisha. And I wasn’t rude enough to leave a hungry family standing at the front of a restaurant. With my politest, fake-genuine Iowa smile and upbeat tone of voice I knew, I greeted the family, sat them and proceeded to take their order.

And now, here in this little story, if I was a true liberal interested in writing a “Don’t judge a book by its cover”/break-all-stereotypes story, I would write how that family was the nicest family I ever met with the most polite children I’d ever seen and they left me a very generous tip that must’ve been quite a stretch for their most-likely-limited budget.

But that’s not what happened. The family lived up to every stereotype you could imagine for a family that lived in a ghetto and had not been taught — nor interested in — how to behave with decorum and politeness in public. The grown women were rude and talked to me as if I was their personal servant. The children created mess after mess as children are wont to do. There was something “wrong” with every plate of food I brought out to the family. And, of course, only giving a discount for each plate was the only way to “fix” the problem. And, at the end of the meal when that section of the restaurant had been thoroughly trashed? No tip.

Fine, I said silently to Lateisha in my mind. You’re not going to wait on niggers (your words not mine). Ok. But then every piece of white trash that comes in here — they are yours. Every European with the fancy jeans who forgot to read the section in the guidebook that says “U.S. restaurant food is cheap because the restaurants don’t pay their servers” — they’re yours too, Lateisha.

It was not a game of race, but a game of class. It was easy to predict who was going to tip you. Students? Oddly, yes. Many were flush with cash from their parents’ support or had waited their own tables to support themselves. Professors, grad students, etc. Yes, but at a flat 15% rate. Middle-to-upper class African-Americans? Yes, and quite well. European tourists? Not at all. Lower-income whites from the less-desirable white neighborhoods from the southwestern reaches of Chicagoland? Most likely not much, but maybe a token amount. Low-income African-American residents of the Chicago projects. No. And they were going to work you to the bone.

And it was with that single “I don’t wait on no niggers” comment coming from my African-American colleague, my mind began to wake up a little to the fact that the world is a much more complicated place than I was idealistically raised to believe in rural Iowa.

After all, how can race be an issue if you have no concept of race?